Every year in the United States, 1.3 million children come in contact with the juvenile justice system. Ninety-five percent of those arrested are held for nonviolent offenses. How these children are treated varies greatly by where they live, their race and ethnicity, as well as their social economic status.
Before the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act (JJDPA) was authorized in 1974, there was no federal standard that protected children who came in contact with the law. Just 40 years ago, it was commonplace for children to be housed in the same cell as adults, or put in prison for noncriminal behavior such as running away or skipping school. Children were frequently deprived of basic human and legal rights, subjecting them to horrible conditions and abuse.
The JJDPA is the only federal act that exists to protect children who are detained and removed for their families. It articulates the minimum standards for treatment of children that states deem necessary to place in secure detention.
The JJDPA outlines four core requirements — deinstitutionalization of status offenders, jail removal, sight and sound separation, and disproportionate minority contact — that states must comply with in order to receive federal dollars to improve their juvenile justice system. Nearly every state and territory has signed on to the JJDPA, thereby agreeing to establish these minimal protections for children in their states.
The Act has not been reauthorized since 2002, and in the past decade, funding for the programs and research that inform the most effective ways to treat children and keep communities safe has deteriorated by more than 55 percent. This has not stopped many states and local jurisdictions from continuing to improve their juvenile justice programs — in fact, many states have embraced the research and have changed their practices — removing children from state custody and supporting them in their communities. This has led to a 40-year low in youth crime, keeping communities safe while stabilizing kids in their home communities.
It is time for the federal law to catch up to best practices. In December, Sens. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., introduced a bill to reauthorize the JJDPA.
Today, they reintroduced a new bill in support of reauthorization — a bill that strengthens the core requirements of the law to reflect current research and practice and ensures that states are held accountable for the federal dollars allocated to implement the JJDPA.
Reauthorization is critically important to protecting children who are removed from their homes and communities and placed into detention by:
- Ensuring that children who engage in risky adolescent behavior such as running away, underage drinking, curfew violations and skipping school get the help they need in their home communities and are not incarcerated for this behavior.
- Protecting youth from being housed with adults. The bill extends the jail removal and sight and sound core requirements to keep youth awaiting trial in criminal court out of adult lock-ups, and to ensure sight and sound separation in the limited circumstances where they are held in adult facilities. Research shows that youth confined in adult jails and lock-ups are more likely to reoffend upon release and while confined are at pronounced risks for suffering assault and committing suicide.
- Establishing measurable objectives to reduce the racial and ethnic disparities that are well documented in our juvenile justice system. Research has documented that youth of color are disproportionately over-represented and subject to more punitive sanctions than similarly charged/situated white youth at all levels of the juvenile justice system. The bill gives clear direction to states and localities to plan and implement data-driven approaches to ensure fairness and reduce racial and ethnic disparities, to set measurable objectives for disparity reduction and to publicly report such efforts.
It is time for the federal government to take leadership in protecting some of our most vulnerable children. Reauthorization of the JJDPA is a critical first step in accomplishing this.
Marcy Mistrett is the CEO of Campaign for Youth Justice, a national initiative focused entirely on ending the practice of prosecuting, sentencing and incarcerating youth under 18 in the adult criminal justice system. Mistrett is also the co-chair of the Act4JJ Coalition, a national group of juvenile justice, child welfare and youth development organizations advocating for the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) and increased federal funding for juvenile justice programs and services.